Exploring Herman Miller's Legacy

A survey of Herman Miller catalogues. To the right hand corner is the famous hardcover product catalog designed and written by George Nelson from 1948. In the foreground is Life Magazine's article on Nelson and his Storagewall Design. It caught D.J. De Pree's eye in 1945. Photograph by Martha Morimoto.

A survey of Herman Miller catalogues. To the right hand corner is the famous hardcover product catalog designed and written by George Nelson from 1948. In the foreground is Life Magazine's article on Nelson and his Storagewall Design. It caught D.J. De Pree's eye in 1945. Photograph by Martha Morimoto.

   The George Nelson Platform Bench. The Charles + Ray Eames DCM chair. Alexander Girard's beautiful and colorful textile work. The Isamu Nogochi glass-topped coffee table. All of these pinnacles of modernism that put American design on the map come from one name: Herman Miller.

    It's hard to imagine the landscape of American design without Herman Miller. In 1923, Herman Miller was still the Michigan Star Furniture Company, a manufacturer of high-quality, traditional-style bedroom bed suites when D.J. De Pree, its owner, convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to purchase majority of the company’s shares. Grateful for his father-in-law’s trust, De Pree renamed the company “Herman Miller".

Gilbert Rohde. Photograph by Luis Lemus. 

Gilbert Rohde. Photograph by Luis Lemus. 

  The company was still making bedroom bed suites when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.  On the verge of bankruptcy, De Pree needed to revitalize his company quickly. On a trip to New York, De Pree was intrigued by Gilbert Rohde's vision of creating furniture better suited for the American public. This chance meeting with Rohde would be the beginning of the Herman Miller brand we know today.

   We recently visited Herman Miller’s headquarters in Zeeland, Michigan. The tour included a look at the premises and archives, the production of the Aeron Chair as well as chatting with R&D.

  History runs deep in Herman Miller’s ethos. Keeping true to Rhode’s original mission of creating better furniture suited for the American public, the company's past continues to inspire the present.

George Nelson's Platform Bench for Herman Miller. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.

George Nelson's Platform Bench for Herman Miller. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.

George Nelson's Slat Bench for Herman Miller. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.

George Nelson's Slat Bench for Herman Miller. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.

   Rohde died in 1944 and De Pree hired George Nelson to be the new Design Director after seeing Life Magazine’s article on Nelson and his Storagewall Design. Pinnacles of American modernism followed in the next few years, contributing to the canonical design movement, “Mid-Century Modern.” Nelson created the “Platform Bench” to be straightforward and versatile.

   Herman Miller’s primary focus of the 90s was producing the Aeron chair. In 1994, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick designed this chair to be made out of 94 percent recyclable material. The Aeron chair created a revolution in the workplace. What differentiates this chair is its focus on good posture while providing lower back support alleviating the back pain arising from sitting in an office all day. It has no foam, fabric or leather.

A peek at the "Living Office" at Herman Miller's Design Yard. Fabric panels and designs by Alexander Girard are sprinkled throughout the space. Photograph by Martha Morimoto.

A peek at the "Living Office" at Herman Miller's Design Yard. Fabric panels and designs by Alexander Girard are sprinkled throughout the space. Photograph by Martha Morimoto.

Our set of Alexander Girard + Peter Protzman dining chairs designed for Herman Miller, c 1960s. Original upholstery. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.

Our set of Alexander Girard + Peter Protzman dining chairs designed for Herman Miller, c 1960s. Original upholstery. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.

    We learned about Herman Miller's on-going project: redefining the American work office. How we work and interact with one another is constantly changing. The office environment should be a reflection of these changes. "Living Office" is Herman Miller's philosophy of a high-performing office space which creates a free-flowing efficient work experience. The urge towards innovation works in the company's spirit of creating a better suited environment for the needs of American working class.

      Upon leaving the premises, we were gifted an unexpected present.

   In 1995, Herman Miller opened a new manufacturing facility in Michigan. Built in the middle of lush meadows and flora, the facility dubbed "The Greenhouse" was an example of the company's move to sustainable environmental building practices. In 2000, things weren't looking that great. Paper wasps, known for their aggressive nature, had invaded the facility. The flowers weren't blossoming as expected. In a last effort to save the wilting project and in compliance of the Greenhouse's no-pesticides policy, honeybees were introduced. Not only did they cross-pollinate the flowers, they also took over the wasps' main food source.

    A beautiful, unexpected by-product of their presence no one had considered initially? Honey. Our trip ended on a sweet note.

Julia Kulon